'Easily one of the year’s most fascinating pop albums'
Andy Hermann
10:05 20th September 2018

The ‘80s were a very gender-fluid decade for pop music. On MTV, Annie Lennox wore tuxedos and Boy George wore kimonos. Prince sang ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as his pitch-shifted alter ego, Camille. Madonna’s groundbreaking persona was both ultra-feminine and more sexually aggressive than the boys. Even the decade’s biggest star, Michael Jackson, presented a kind of lithe androgyny in his sinuous dance moves and supple falsetto.

It’s no surprise that Héloïse Letissier, the queer singer-producer behind Christine and the Queens, is drawn to that decade. Retro synths dominate her second album, Chris, whose title signals her shift towards a more masculine version of her stage persona. But where many artists mine the ‘80s for nostalgia or kitsch, Letissier uses it as a backdrop for the kind of vulnerability that’s lacking in most of the maximalist pop music of the 2010s. As a producer, she understands how to use space and restraint, hallmarks of ‘80s synth-pop production, to create a sense of intimacy — and as a songwriter, she knows how to fill those spaces with lyrics and melodies that draw the listener into her world, even as the snap of the drum machines make that listener want to dance.

No track better illustrates Letissier’s skills than ‘Goya Soda’, a sparse meditation on youthful lust that rides a taciturn synth-bass and ghostly harmony vocals as she sings about her irresistible attraction to a “soft and liquidy” young man, amazed and confused at her own longing. “What is happening to me,” she sings; “As he eats my heart out I’m on my knees.” It’s both a come-on and a confession, and as the throbbing synths fade out, leaving only a mournful piano on the song’s outro (another great ‘80s trick, employed by everyone from ABC to Level 42), it becomes a kind of hymn. It’s the album’s most intriguing song — especially when you realized the ‘Goya’ of the title is a reference both to the soft drink brand and the Spanish chiaroscuro master.

Elsewhere on Chris, Letissier deploys a more armor-plated version of the pop instincts that made ‘Tilted’ an international hit. “Girlfriend” wraps a playful rejection of gendered relationship roles (“Don’t feel like a girlfriend/But lover?/Damn, I’d be your lover”) in punchy electro-funk, with an assist from L.A. producer Dâm-Funk. ‘Doesn’t Matter’ hijacks the schoolyard beat of Toni Basil’s ‘Hey Mickey’ and somersaults it into moodier territory, as Chris ponders the existence of god and the source of her suicidal thoughts. ‘Damn (what must a woman do)’ is a Rhythm Nation homage in which Chris sweats a “butch babe in L.A.” over synth squiggles and a muscular groove.

Tough and tender, lustful and brokenhearted, Chris delivers on the promise of Christine and the Queens’ world-conquering debut. No track leaps out with the immediacy of ‘Tilted’, but instead of trying to reconjure that moment, Letissier — or let’s call her by her new name, Chris — went deeper, delivering a messy, emotional record that’s easily one of the year’s most fascinating pop albums.

Photo: Press